Laura Riding was still in her thirties when she published her 477-page Collected Poems in 1938. At an age when most poets are just beginning to come into their own she had already reached maturity, and the list of her work up to that time is impressive: nine volumes of poetry, several collections of critical essays and fiction, a long novel, and the founding of a small publishing house, the Seizin Press. As early as 1924, soon after her graduation from Cornell, The Fugitive had called her “the discovery of the year, a new figure in American poetry,” and later, in Europe, during the period of her intimate and stormy relationship with Robert Graves, she became an important force of the international avant-garde.
Auden, who described her as “the only living philosophical poet,” was apparently so influenced by her poems as a young man that Graves felt obliged to write him a letter reprimanding him for his blatant Laura Riding imitations, and the method of close textual criticism she developed in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (written in collaboration with Graves) directly inspired Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Then, after 1938, nothing. No more poems, no more stories, no more essays. As time went on, Laura Riding’s name was almost totally forgotten, and to a new generation of poets and writers it was as if she had never existed.
She was not heard from again until 1962, when she agreed to give a reading of some of her poems for a BBC broadcast and to deliver a few remarks about the philosophical and linguistic reasons for her break with poetry. Since then, there have been several appearances in print, and now, most recently, the publication of two books: a selection of her poems, which is prefaced by a further discussion of her attitude toward poetry, and The Telling, a prose work which she has described as a “personal evangel.” Clearly, Laura Riding is back. Although she has written no poems since 1938, her new work in The Telling is very intimately connected with her earlier writings, and in spite of her long public silence, her career is of a single piece.
Laura Riding and Laura (Riding) Jackson—the married name she now uses—are in many ways mirror images of each other. Each has attempted to realize a kind of universal truth in language—“a linguistically ordained ideal, every degree of fulfilment of which is a degree of express fulfilment of the hope comprehended in being, in its comprehending us within it, as human”—and if this ambition seems to be grandiose and remote, it has nevertheless been constant. The only thing that has changed is the method. Up to 1938, Laura Riding was convinced that poetry was the best way to achieve this goal. Since then, she has revised her opinion, and has not only given up poetry, but now sees it as one of the prime obstacles on this path toward linguistic truth.*
When we turn to her own poetry, what is striking is its consistency of purpose and manner. From the very beginning, it seems, Laura Riding knew where she was going, and her poems ask to be read not as isolated lyrics, but as interconnecting parts of an enormous poetic project.
We must learn better
What we are and are not.
We are not the wind.
We are not every vagrant mood that tempts
Our minds to giddy homelessness.
We must distinguish better
Between ourselves and strangers.
There is much that we are not.
There is much that is not.
There is much that we have not to be.
(from The Why of the Wind)
This is essential Riding: the abstract discourse, the insistence upon confronting ultimate questions, the tendency toward moral exhortation, the quickness and cleanness of thought, the unexpected juxtapositions of words, as in the phrase “giddy homelessness.” The physical world is hardly present here, and when it is mentioned, it appears only as metaphor, as a kind of linguistic shorthand for indicating ideas and mental processes. The wind, for example, is not a real wind, but a way of expressing what is changeable, a reference to the idea of flux, and we feel its impact only as an idea. The poem itself proceeds as an argument rather than as a statement of feeling or an evocation of personal experience, and its movement is toward generalization, toward the utterance of what the poet takes to be a fundamental truth.
We are not the wind.” In other words, we are what does not change. For Laura Riding, this is the “given” of her project; it cannot be proved but nevertheless operates as the informing principle throughout her work. In poem after poem we witness her trying somehow to peel back the skin of the world in order to find some absolute and unassailable place of permanence, and because the poems are rarely grounded in a physical perception of that world, they tend, strangely, to exist in an almost purely emotional climate, created by the fervor of this metaphysical quest. And yet, in spite of the high seriousness of the poems, there are moments of sharp wit that remind us of Emily Dickinson:
Then follows a description
Of an interval called death
By the living.
But I shall speak of it
As of a brief illness.
For it lasted only
From being not ill
To being not ill.
It came about by chance—
I met God.
‘What,’ he said, ‘you already?’
‘What,’ I said, ‘you still?’
(from “Then Follows”, in Collected Poems)
It is difficult at first to take the full measure of these poems, to understand the particular kinds of problems they are trying to deal with. Laura Riding gives us almost nothing to see, and this absence of imagery and sensuous detail, of any surface, is at first baffling. We feel as though we had been blinded. But this is intentional on her part, and it plays an important part in the themes she develops. She does not so much want us to see as to consider the notion of what is seeable.
You have pretended to be seeing.
I have pretended that you saw.
So came we by such eyes—
And within mystery to have language.
* * *
There was no sight to see.
That which is to be seen is no sight.
You made it a sight to see.
It is no sight, and this was the cause.
Now, having seen, let our eyes close
And a dark blessing pass among us
A quick-slow blessing to have seen
And said and done no worse or better.
The only thing that seems to be present here is the poet’s voice, and it is only gradually, as we “let our eyes close,” that we begin to listen to this voice with special care, to become extremely sensitive to its nuances. Malebranche said that attention is the natural prayer of the soul. In her best poems, I think, Laura Riding coaxes us into a state of rapt listening, into a voice to which we give our complete attention, so that we, as readers, become participants in the unfolding of the poem. The voice is not so much speaking out loud as thinking, following the complex process of thought, and in such a way that we almost immediately internalize it.
Few other poets have ever been able to manipulate abstractions so persuasively. Having been stripped of ornament, reduced to their bare essentials, the poems emerge as a kind of rhetoric, a system of pure argument that works in the manner of music, generating an interaction of themes and counterthemes, and giving the same formal pleasures that music gives.
And talk in talk like time in time vanishes.
Ringing changes on dumb supposition,
Conversation succeeds conversation,
Until there’s nothing left to talk about
Except truth, the perennial monologue,
And no talker to dispute it but itself.
(from The Talking World)
These strengths, however, can also be weaknesses. For in order to sustain the high degree of intellectual precision necessary to the success of the poems, Laura Riding has been forced to engage in a kind of poetic brinkmanship, and she has often lost more than she has won. Eventually we come to realize that the reasons for her break with poetry are implicit in the poems themselves. No matter how much we might admire her work, we sense that there is something missing in it, that it is not really capable of expressing the full range of experience it claims to be expressing. The source of this lack, paradoxically, lies in her conception of language, which in many ways is at odds with the very idea of poetry:
Come, words, away from mouths,
Away from tongues in mouths
And reckless hearts in tongues
And mouths in cautious heads—
Come, words, away to where
The meaning is not thickened
With the voice’s fretting substance,…
(from Come, Words, Away)
The desire is self-defeating. If it is anything, poetry is precisely that way of using language which forces words to remain in the mouth, the way by which we can most fully experience and understand “the voice’s fretting substance.” There is something too glacial in Laura Riding’s approach to gain our sympathy. If the truth in language she is seeking is a human truth, it would seem to be contradictory to want this truth at the expense of what is human. But in trying to deny speech its physical properties—in refusing to acknowledge that speech is an imperfect tool of imperfect creatures—this seems to be exactly what she is doing.
In the preface to the Collected Poems, written in 1938, at the moment of her most passionate adherence to poetry, we can see this desire for transcendence as the motivating force behind her work. “I am going to give you,” she writes, “poems written for all the reasons of poetry—poems which are also a record of how, by gradual integration of the reasons of poetry, existence in poetry becomes more real than existence in time—more real because more good, more good because more true.” Thirty years later, she uses almost the same terms to justify her equally passionate opposition to poetry: “To a poet the mere making of a poem can seem to solve the problem of truth…. But only a problem of art is solved in poetry. Art, whose honesty must work through, artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth. Poetic art cheats truth to further and finer degrees than art of any other kind because the spoken word is its exclusive medium….”
For all their loftiness and intensity, these statements remain curiously vague. For the truth that is referred to is never really defined, except as something beyond time, beyond art, beyond the senses. Such talk seems to set us afloat in a vast realm of Platonic idealism, and it is difficult for us to know where we are. At the same time, we are unconvinced. Neither statement is very believable to us as a statement about poetry, because, at heart, neither one is about poetry. Laura Riding is clearly interested in problems that extend beyond poetry’s scope, and by dwelling on these problems as if they were its exclusive concerns, she only confuses the issue. She did not renounce poetry because of any objective inadequacy in poetry itself—for it is no better or worse than any other human activity—but because poetry as she conceived of it was no longer capable of saying what she wanted to say. She now feels that she had “reached poetry’s limit.” But what really happened, it would seem, is that she had reached her own limit in poetry.
It is appropriate, then, that her work since 1938 has been largely devoted to a more general investigation of language, and when we come to The Telling we find a deeper discussion of many of the same questions she tried to formulate in her poetry. The book, which fits into no established literary category, is positively Talmudic in structure. “The Telling” itself is a short text of less than fifty pages, divided into numbered paragraphs, originally written for an issue of the New York literary magazine Chelsea in 1967. To this “core-text,” which is written in a dense, highly abstract prose almost devoid of outside references, she has added a series of commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, notes, and addenda, which flesh out many of the earlier conclusions and treat various literary, political, and philosophical matters.
The book is an astonishing display of a consciousness confronting and examining itself. Based on the idea that “the human utmost is marked out in a linguistic utmost,” she pursues an ideal of “humanly perfect word-use” (as opposed to “artistically perfect word-use”), by which she aims to uncover the essential nature of being. Again, or rather still, she is straining toward absolutes, toward an unshakable and unified vision of the world: “…the nature of our being is not to be known as we know the weather, which is by the sense of the momentary. Weather is all change, while our being, in its human nature, is all constancy…it is to be known only by the sense of the constant.” Although Laura (Riding) Jackson has put her former poet self in parentheses, she looks upon The Telling as the successful continuation of her efforts as a poet: “To speak as I speak in it, say such things as I say in it, was part of my hope as a poet.”
The first paragraph of “The Telling” sets forth the substance of the problem that she confronts in the rest of the book:
There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. We know we are explainable, and not explained. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.
The quiet urgency and strong, cadenced phrasing entice us to go on listening. “We know we are explainable, and not explained.” In the subsequent paragraphs we are shown why the various human disciplines—science, religion, philosophy, history, poetry—have not and cannot explain us. Suddenly, everything has been swept aside; the way seems to have been cleared for a fresh approach to things. And yet, when she reaches the point of offering her own explanations, it seems as if she had been rejecting the myth-making tendencies of previous thought only to present another myth of her own devising—a myth of memory, a faith in the capacity of human beings to remember a time of wholeness that preceded the existence of individual selves. “May our Mayness become All-embracing. May we see in one another the All that was once All-one rebecome One.” And elsewhere: “Yes, I think we remember our creation!—have a memory of it in us, to know. Through the memory of it we apprehend that there was a Before-time of being from which being passed into what would be us.”
It is not that we doubt this belief of hers. In fact, we feel that she is trying to report a genuine mystical experience. The problem is that she speaks of this purely personal experience in rigorous and objective terms, and as a result mingles two kinds of incompatible discourse. In spite of her intentions, there is no common ground established with us.
Yet if it ultimately fails to carry out its promises, The Telling is still valuable to us for the exceptional quality of its prose and the innovations of its form. The sheer immensity of its ambitions makes it exciting, even when it most irritates us. More importantly, it is crucial to us for what it reveals—retroactively—about Laura Riding’s earlier work as a poet. For, in the end, it is as a poet that she will be read and remembered. Whatever objections we might want to raise about her approach to poetry in general, it would be difficult not to recognize her as a poet of importance.
Roses are buds, and beautiful,
One petal leaning toward adventure.
Roses are full, all petals forward,
Beauty and power indistinguishable.
Roses are blown, startled with life,
Death young in their faces.
Shall they Die?
Then comes the halt, and recumbence, and failing.
But none says, ‘A rose is dead.’
But men die: it is said, it is seen,
For man is a long, late adventure;
His budding is a purpose,
His fullness more purpose,
His blowing a renewal,
His death a cramped spilling
Of rash measures and miles.
To the rose no tears:
Which flee before the race is called.
And to man no mercy but his will
That he has had his will, and is done.
The mercy of truth—it is to be truth.
(from The Last Covenant)
In one of the supplementary chapters of The Telling, “Extracts from Communications,” she speaks of the relationship between the writer and his work in a way that seems to express her aspirations as a poet. “If what you write is true, it will not be so because of what you are as a writer but because of what you are as a being. There can be no literary equivalent to truth. If, in writing, truth is the quality of what is said, told, this is not a literary achievement: it is a simple human achievement.” This is not very far from the spirit of Ben Jonson’s assertion that only a good man is capable of writing a good poem. It is an idea standing at one extreme of our literary consciousness that places poetry within an essentially moral frame. As a poet, Laura Riding followed this principle until she reached what she felt to be “a crisis-point at which division between craft and creed reveals itself to be absolute.” In the making of poems, she concluded, the demands of art would always outweigh the demands of truth.
Beauty and truth. It is the old question, come back to haunt us. Laura Riding sacrificed her poetic career in a choice between the two. But whether she has really answered the question, as she appears to think she has, is open to debate. What we do have are the poems she left behind her, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that we are drawn to them most of all for their beauty. We cannot call Laura Riding a neglected poet, since she was the cause of her own neglect. But after more than thirty years of absence, these poems strike us with the force of rediscovery.
Fiction should be mentioned here as well—for Laura Riding was a remarkable story writer; Progress of Stories (1936) is one of her finest works. In her preface to the book she makes a firm distinction between "story telling" and "truth telling," as if to diminish the importance of the stories; but perhaps because she was so relaxed about writing fiction she was able to reveal certain aspects of herself and her powers as a writer that might otherwise have remained hidden: a wonderful sense of humor and a superb eye for physical detail. The book is composed of eighteen stories that "progress" from "Stories of Lives" to "Stories of Ideas" to "Nearly True Stories," and while each story can be read independently of the others, the whole presents us with a theory of fiction that is an important corollary to her ideas about poetry. She is equally pleasing as a realist and as an inventor of fairy tales. It would seem that now is a good moment for some publisher to reissue this book, which has been unavailable for many years.↩
Telling October 2, 1975
Fiction should be mentioned here as well—for Laura Riding was a remarkable story writer; Progress of Stories (1936) is one of her finest works. In her preface to the book she makes a firm distinction between “story telling” and “truth telling,” as if to diminish the importance of the stories; but perhaps because she was so relaxed about writing fiction she was able to reveal certain aspects of herself and her powers as a writer that might otherwise have remained hidden: a wonderful sense of humor and a superb eye for physical detail. The book is composed of eighteen stories that “progress” from “Stories of Lives” to “Stories of Ideas” to “Nearly True Stories,” and while each story can be read independently of the others, the whole presents us with a theory of fiction that is an important corollary to her ideas about poetry. She is equally pleasing as a realist and as an inventor of fairy tales. It would seem that now is a good moment for some publisher to reissue this book, which has been unavailable for many years.↩